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Varakh (Silver Foil)


 

 

Pramoda Chitrabhanu

Jain Meditation International Center, New York

Do you know whether the varakh (silver foil) used in many Jain temples on the idols and in some religious ceremonies is vegetarian?

Do you know how the varakh on your sweets (mithai) is manufactured? As a child I remember always asking for those sweets that had silver foil on them. Even today children as well as adults go for varakh on the sweets. Its popular appeal has a stronger hold on people's mind, increasing the demand and there by it's supply. If people know the source and method of making it, I am sure they will never eat the silver-coated sweets again.

Let us find out the procedure from the article written by Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC), India branch. We are thankful to them for this valuable information.

If you look beyond the glitter of varakh, into the sheds where it is produced, and at the lives that are sacrificed to make this possible, you would think twice before buying that box of sweets topped with the precious silver foil!

Silver foil, or varakh, as it is generally known in India, adds glitter to Indian sweets (mithai), supari (betel nut), paan (betel-leaf), and fruits. Also it is used in Ayurvedic medicines and on deities in many Jain temples. The silver-topped sweet is even served as prasad in temples and on auspicious and religious occasions. Varakh is also used in flavored syrups as in kesar (saffron) syrup.

Several years ago, as suggested by BWC, Indian Airlines instructed their caterers to stop the use of varakh on sweets (mithai) served on board their flights. Today, many ask for sweets without varakh, having realized the cruelty involved in its preparation.

According to a feature article in Business India, an astounding 275 tons of silver are eaten annually into foil for sweets and chyavanprash! That is a whopping 2,75,000 kilograms! (At the present market rate that would cost a phenomenal Rs. 165 Crore or $ 40 million U.S. Dollars).

Just how is varakh made and what is it that makes its preparation and consumption so sinful?

Varakh is not derived from an animal source. However, a crucial material of animal origin, ox-gut, is used in its manufacture. This ox-gut is obtained from the slaughterhouse.

In the by lanes of the villages of Ahmedabad (Gujarat state, India) and other cities, amidst filthy surroundings, placed between layers of ox-gut, small thin strips of silver are hammered to produce the glittering foil.

The intestine (ox-gut), smeared with blood and mucus, is pulled out from the slaughtered animal by the butcher at the slaughterhouse, and sold for the specific purpose. Note that it is not a by-product of slaughter, but like everything else meat, hide, and bones are sold by weight. This is then taken away to be cleaned and used in the manufacture of varakh.

The gut of an average cow, measuring 540 inches in length and 3 inches in diameter, is cut open into a piece measuring 540" x 10". From this, strips of 9" x 10" are cut to give approximately 60 pieces of ox-gut, which are then piled one onto another and bound to form a book of 171 leaves.

Next, small thin strips of silver are placed between the sheets and the book slipped into a leather pouch (note that the use of leather-an animal product again). Artisans then hammer these bundles continuously for a day to produce extremely thin foils of silver of 3" x 5".

The leather and ox-gut, being supple, can withstand the intense manual hammering for up to 8 hours a day till such time as the silver is beaten to the desired thickness. When ready, the foil is carefully lifted from between the leaves of ox-gut and placed between sheets of paper to be sold to the sweet makers (mithaiwallas). A booklet of 160 foils weighs approximately 10 grams and costs about Rs. 200 ($5.00).

To make a single booklet of 171 sheets, the guts of 3 cows are used. And the yield per book is generally 160 foils of silver, the rest of which may be damaged or unfit for use. Thus one book, used on an average of 300 days of the year yields approximately 48,000 foils of silver which means that each ox-gut yields an estimated 16,000 foils.

The leather used for the pouch to hold the book (made from ox-gut), is cowhide or calf leather, and uses about 232 sq. inches of material. Assuming the size of an average cowhide to be 18 sq. ft or 2,600 sq. Inches, the yield per hide will be approximately 10 leather pouches.

Usually 4 foils are used per kilograms (2.2 lbs.) of sweets and the ox-gut of one cow is used to produce foil for approximately 4,000 kilograms (9,000 lbs.) of sweets. It is estimated (by Surveys) that the average consumption of sweets by a middle class family of four in India is about 100 kilograms per year.

Thus, an average middle class Indian family of four consuming approximately 100 kg of sweets per year for forty years consumes silver foil produced with the gut of 3 cows and one-tenth of a cowhide!

India is not the only country where foil is made by such methods. In Germany, small-specialized enterprises produce gold leaf, which is beaten down to 1/10,000-millimeter thickness, for decorative and technical purposes by similar methods. The Jews use the gold foil for as much the same purposes, namely for food preparations, as it is in India.

In India the 275 tons of silver that are beaten annually into varakh utilize intestines of 516,000 cows and calf leather of 17,200 animals each year.

Therefore, we hope that someone; somewhere will develop an alternative process for the making of varakh without using ox-gut.